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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The “Unfounded News” with which Mrs. Smith cons Anne Elliot: Nurse Rooke the imaginary & false rumor monger of Persuasion

In response to my claim that in Persuasion, Nurse Rooke was an imaginary friend invented by Mrs. Smith as a "reliable" source for supposedly damning information about Cousin Elliot's dreadful behavior as a husband during his marriage, one respondent  seemed to recall that Nurse Rooke opens the door to Anne and is even described by the narrator. 

I replied as follows: 

I must tell you that you do not recall correctly, the truth is slightly different, but that "slightly" is actually enormous, it is sufficient to change everything you (think you) know about Nurse Rooke! Let me explain.

Jane Austen, through the words of her clever manipulator Mrs. Smith, has led all her readers down the garden path of  (in Anne Elliot’s words) “unfounded news” about Nurse Rooke for nearly two centuries, but now I am here to show a different path, one which avoids that pitfall, and shows that Nurse Rooke is not who Mrs. Smith says she is.

First, here is the exact quotation from Chapter 21 for that scene, right after Mrs. Smith surprises Anne by telling her that she was expecting Anne to marry Cousin Elliot:

[Anne] "Do tell me how it first came into your head."
"It first came into my head," replied Mrs Smith, "upon finding how much you were together, and feeling it to be the most probable thing in the world to be wished for by everybody belonging to either of you; and you may depend upon it that all your acquaintance have disposed of you in the same way. But I never heard it spoken of till two days ago."
"And has it indeed been spoken of?"
"Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you when you called yesterday?"
"No. Was not it Mrs Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no one in particular."
"It was my friend Mrs Rooke; Nurse Rooke; who, by-the-bye, had a great curiosity to see you, and was delighted to be in the way to let you in. She came away from Marlborough Buildings only on Sunday; and she it was who told me you were to marry Mr Elliot. She had had it from Mrs Wallis herself, which did not seem bad authority. She sat an hour with me on Monday evening, and gave me the whole history." "The whole history," repeated Anne, laughing. "She could not make a very long history, I think, of one such little article of unfounded news."
Mrs Smith said nothing.     END QUOTE

Did you notice that Anne initially believes that she was let in by either Mrs. Speed (a servant, or perhaps an agent of the slumlord who owns Westgate Buildings?) or Mrs. Smith's maid? When Mrs. Smith asks if Anne observed the woman who opened the door to Anne the day before, Anne replies, "I observed no one in particular".

Think about Anne’s reply. Jane Austen goes out of her way as an author to let us know that Mrs. Smith talks Anne into believing that it was Nurse Rooke who let her in. It is beyond Anne’s imagination that Mrs. Smith might have some motivation to deceive Anne about who let her in. But then note that this intelligence is the immediate prelude to Mrs. Smith launching into a rhapsody of praise for Nurse Rooke as a really great person. And, in turn, that rhapsody functions, in terms of the arc of the main story line, as an unassailable character reference for Nurse Rooke as a reliable reporter of the rumor supposedly floating around Bath that Anne was going to marry Cousin Elliot:

"[Nurse Rooke] it was who told me you were to marry Mr Elliot. She had had it from Mrs Wallis herself, which did not seem bad authority. She sat an hour with me on Monday evening, and gave me the whole history." "The whole history," repeated Anne, laughing. "She could not make a very long history, I think, of one such little article of unfounded news."

My interpretation of Nurse Rooke as a phantom gives the above passage a whole layer of previously unnoticed irony---Anne laughs, cocky in her skepticism about gossip about "unfounded news", and yet, in the very same moment, Mrs. Smith, like any good con artist, has been distracting Anne from noticing that Anne’s been taken in by Mrs. Smith, hook line and sinker (on dry land), with the whopper that the nonexistent Nurse Rooke has heard this supposed rumor about Cousin Elliot marrying Anne-talk about "unfounded news"!

So...this question of Nurse Rooke's actual existence couldn't be more important, this is not just narratorial window dressing. And, as I noted in my first post about Nurse Rooke, this would be one of several instances in Persuasion in which I claim Anne Elliot, with her serious vision problems, has been misled about the identity of someone, either by self-deception fueled by desperate longing for Captain Wentworth, or by (as in this case) deception intentionally perpetrated on her by people close to her whom she trusts.

You can readily imagine, then, my delight that my new insight about Nurse Rooke as imaginary converges and dovetails so perfectly with my earlier insight about Anne as vision-impaired. What’s more, Mrs. Smith knows Anne does not see clearly, and also knows that Anne is in complete denial about those serious vision problems. Which makes Anne a perfect mark for a major con by Mrs. Smith.

And there’s more! I am sure you are also aware that perhaps the greatest controversy among readers of Persuasion has to do with Mrs. Smith's motivations and reliability in her report about Cousin Elliot’s supposedly dark past. Many readers are unsatisfied by Mrs. Smith’s sudden about-face, which troubles even Anne, even though it doesn’t ultimately cause her to disbelieve her old friend.

I believe that knowing Nurse Rooke to be a figment of Mrs. Smith’s fertile Machiavellian imagination, invented so as to convince Anne that Cousin Elliot is a very bad egg indeed, will be viewed by most Janeites as a welcome route to a more satisfying understanding of Mrs. Smith. More than any other plot element in any Jane Austen novel, these problems associated with Mrs.Smith have been attributed by Janeites to Jane Austen having been too ill to finish Persuasion properly. I now see Mrs. Smith not as a poorly finished failure of authorial control, but as a virtuosic bit of authorial legerdemain, disguised as a narratorial gaffe. Jane Austen and her garden paths… wonder, again, that she hides the name of  Satan inside Mrs. Smith’s description of Nurse Rooke!

And I conclude by pointing out something that perhaps occurred to some of you when you read my claim that Mrs.Smith reports a phantom rumor to Anne, which winds up, seemingly by accident, contributing materially toward bringing the hero and heroine together romantically. Does this remind you of anything you’ve read about another Austen novel in which a rumor which mystifies the heroine winds up bringing her together with the hero?

Of course I am referring to the rumor about Lizzy and Darcy being engaged in P&P! And, as first discovered by Kim Damstra in 1998, and rediscovered independently by me in 2004, it is Charlotte Luc-as (as in Luc-ifer) who sneakily spreads that false rumor, with exactly the same intent as Mrs. Smith’s, in ALL respects!

And, by the way, did you notice the name of one of  the women whom Anne Elliot names as the person who opened the door to her the day before? It's Mrs. SPEED---as in Speed, the shifty, Machiavellian servant who plays both sides of the game in the scheming among the suitors Valentine and Proteus in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona?

Wheels  within wheels within wheels!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter   

Added at 12:20 pm EST on 2/6/14:
Diane Reynolds wrote in response: "A rook is also a cheat or a fraud."

Diane, you took the words outta my mouth. ;)

Nancy Mayer wrote: "Are you claiming that what [Mrs. Smith] said about Elliot was lies and that he didn't refuse to help her and didn't help lead her husband astray? I do think it says that Wentworth was able to help her receive some of her money."

Nancy, here's exactly what it says in that regard in the penultimate chapter of the entire novel:

"[Mrs. Smith's] recent good offices by Anne had been enough in themselves, and their marriage, instead of depriving her of one friend, secured her two. She was their earliest visitor in their settled life; and Captain Wentworth, by putting her in the way of recovering her husband's property in the West Indies, by writing for her, acting for her, and seeing her through all the petty difficulties of the case with the activity and exertion of a fearless man and a determined friend, fully requited the services which she had rendered, or ever meant to render, to his wife."

There's not a word THERE about Cousin Elliot having in any way been culpable or negligent in failing to assist Mrs. Smith. My personal reading there is that this is the cover story told to Anne (who seems to have an infinite capacity for being duped!) by Wentworth and Mrs. Smith, to explain how Mrs. Smith suddenly comes into a lot of money. Whereas the money Mrs. Smith actually receives is a kind of marital brokerage commission-and the "services which she had rendered" were, precisely, causing Anne to write Cousin Elliot off entirely, which greased the skids for Wentworth to slide in.

Ironically, Mrs. Smith really didn't earn that commission, because, again, nobody but Anne knows that she has been loving Wentworth all along! She looks to the world as if she needs to be convinced to take Wentworth. After all, she turned him down eight years earlier! But that's how it is with brokers-- when they have an "exclusive listing", they get their commission regardless of whether they really contributed to the "sale"!!!

Irony, irony, irony....

And there are other benefits to Mrs. Smith of a nonmonetary nature which I will leave for another time....think about it......

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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